Song of the Day: Music About Other Artists (Day Four). The Go-Betweens on Patti Smith on Kurt Cobain and Others. “When She Sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I Thought What A Shame It Wasn’t About Tom Verlaine”.

Patti Smith, along with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, began work on her sixth studio album, Gone Again (1996) in 1994.  Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, previously of the seminal garage band MC5, was a highly influential force on what would become Patti Smith’s first album since Dream of Life in 1988, teaching her to play acoustic guitar so she could write songs by herself and providing her with titles and concepts to develop.

The first of these songs was Summer Cannibals, the eventual single from the album, which discussed the darker side of being a rock musician.  The couple drew from Fred’s Indian ancestry in order to compose a song told from the point of view of a tribe’s shaman.  The song tells of an old woman coming down from the hills in order to tell her people of their history, informing them of, in times of strife, the cycle of life and the changing seasons. And thus began the potent theme of death on Gone Again, a theme inspired by the deaths of several people close to Smith.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had died March 9th 1989, aged 42, from an AIDs-related illness …

… and Patti Smith Group pianist Richard Sohl had died on June 3rd 1990, aged 37, from heart failure.

During the writing of Gone Again, Patti Smith was devastated yet further when on November 4th 1994, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith died suddenly from heart failure, aged just 45.   The loss of her husband informs a vast majority of Gone Again but specifically the final song, Farewell Reel.  Played on the acoustic guitar which her husband taught her how to play, Farewell Reel opens with the spoken message, “This little song’s for Fred; it’s G, C, D and D minor”.

Shortly after the death of her husband, her brother, Todd, also died, aged 45.  Gone Again is also notable for featuring the last studio performance by Jeff Buckley, who added his voice to Beneath The Southern Cross.

Smith was also moved by the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, with whom she had sympathised.  Cobain committed suicide, aged 27, on 5th April 1994.  Smith didn’t know Cobain personally but told Seattle Weekly News in 2010:

“My reaction to Kurt Cobain was much more emotional.  I was heartbroken when he committed suicide.  I loved Nirvana.  And I knew that Kurt Cobain was very fond of my husband and the MC5.  We felt so badly.  We just wished that we would have known him, and been able to talk to him, and had some sort of positive effect on him.  Seeing Robert [Mapplethorpe] doing everything to live, and then seeing this very gifted boy kill himself was painful to factor”.

Smith’s reaction to Cobain’s death can be heard on the song About A Boy, a suitably etheral and sometimes funereal lament, the title of which is a play on Nirvana’s About A Girl, from their 1989 album Bleach.

Lyrically, About A Boy, much like many other songs on Gone Again, is spiritual and almost hymnal with lines such as “Toward another, He has gone, To breathe an air, Beyond his own, Toward a wisdom, Beyond the shelf, Toward a dream, That dreams itself”.

The verse “From the forest, from the foam, from the field, That he had, Known, Toward a river, Twice as blessed, Toward the inn of happiness” tells of Cobain’s ascendance to heaven but also refers to his hometown of Aberdeen in the US State of Washington.  The forest mentioned in the verse is most likely to be Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington, whilst the river mentioned is the Wishkah River, a tributary of the Chehalis River which flows south through Washington and empties into the Chehalis at Aberdeen.  Linking in with the Indian theme on Gone Again, the name “Wishkah” is an adaptation of the Chehalis Indian word ‘hwish-kahl’, meaning “stinking water”.  More importantly, however, the Wishkah River has a great deal of significance in the legend of Kurt Cobain, as he lived under a bridge on the river during a period of homelessness after dropping out of high school and being thrown out of his mother’s home.  The song Something In The Way from Nevermind details this time in Cobain’s life.  After his death, one third of his ashes were scattered in the river.  Additionally, the river gave its name to the Nirvana live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in 1996 and featuring live performance recorded between 1989 and 1994.

A band who had been listening to Smith’s tender tribute to Cobain was Australian band, The Go-Betweens.  For their 2000 album, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Robert Forster wrote When She Sang About Angels, in part an answer song to About A Boy.

When She Sang About Angels includes the slightly sarcastic sounding riposte to Smith choosing to pay tribute to Cobain, “When she sang About A Boy, Kurt Cobain, I thought what a shame, it wasn’t about, Tom Verlaine”.  Tom Verlaine is best known as the front man of seminal New York rock band Television, most notable for their critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Marquee Moon (1977).  Verlaine was a stalwart of famous New York punk clubs such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and dated Patti Smith whilst they were both up and coming artists.  Verlaine has collaborated with Smith many times over the years, most notably adding guitar to Smith’s albums Horses (1975); Easter (1978); Gone Again (1996) and later, Gung Ho (2000) and Twelve (2007).

The song’s title and lyrics “When she sang about angels, She looked at the sky …” refers to both Smith’s songs about people who have died on Gone Again and to Smith’s song Ask The Angels, the opening track on, and third single taken from, her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.

Additionally, When She Sang About Angels includes lines such as “When she sang about the fields, She raised up her arm, As if she was pushing back the cotton on some Midwestern farm”, a reference to Smith’s powerful stage mannerisms and the imagery of fields which inhabits some of her songs.  Take for example, in About A Boy where she sings, “From the field that he had known”; Ask the Angels, in which she sings “Across the country through the fields” and Birdland (Horses, 1975) in which she sings, “Him and his daddy used to sit inside, And circle the blue fields and grease the night”.

Despite the hint of sarcasm which pervades Forster’s critique of Smith, there is also a lot of tenderness expressed towards Smith in When She Sang About Angels.  Take for example the refrain, “Anybody else, anybody else, but I let it go by”, absolving Smith of her various lyrical and performance tendencies and the reminiscence of the lines “Then she threw some names, Like she always did, She threw some names, she dropped some names, Like she used to when I was a kid”.  Smith is known for writing songs about other people and in particular other artists.  Take for example, her song Frederick (Wave, 1979), written about Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith before their marriage in 1980.

Smith would pay further tribute to Kurt Cobain on her 2007 album of cover versions, Twelve, when she covered Nirvana’s 1991 mega-hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, from the album Nevermind.

Smith’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit strips away the thundering bombast of the original, the sound which inspired a thousand other bands and almost single-handedly invented ‘Grunge’, and delivers it with a sparse country-tinged arrangement featuring a bass guitar, acoustic guitar, violin, banjo and her voice, which much like Kurt Cobain’s, has influenced whole generations.

Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Two): “New York is the Place Where …”

Right from the early days of The Velvet Underground, Brooklyn born Lou Reed had taken the location, people and elements of New York, usually the darker elements, and put them to a unique musical backdrop in order to tell a story.  Take for example, I’m Waiting for the Man from Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), a song about purchasing $26 worth of heroin in a Harlem brownstone near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, written from the perspective of the purchaser.

In the late 1960s, Reed (along with other members of The Velvet Underground:  John Cale, Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, together with Nico) was a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory.  In 1966, Warhol set his sights on the world of rock music, sponsoring The Velvet Underground.  From The Factory, Reed drew inspiration for many of the Velvet Underground’s songs, setting the ‘low life’ characters that were an integral part of the scene and the goings on inside The Factory to music.  Take for example, Heroin (from Velvet Underground and Nico) and later, Candy Says (from The Velvet Underground, 1968).

Candy Says is a precursor to the themes expressed on one of Reed’s best known songs, Walk on the Wild Side, from his 1972 David Bowie produced classic, Transformer.  Candy Says tells the story of Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol Superstar who starred in Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971).  Four years after Candy Says, Darling would also become one of Reed’s muses for Walk on the Wild Side.

Jayne County said of Reed’s transfixation with characters such as Candy Darling:

“Lou Reed was fascinated with trannies, transsexuals particularly.  He loved transvestites, he’s fascinated with transvestites.  But Lou, at one time actually had a girlfriend called Rachel and she was a transsexual.  It’s only natural that Lou would write a song where three of the characters are drag queens”.

Reed struggled with his own sexuality throughout most of his life.  When he was 16, his parents consented to Reed being given electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to cure his homosexual feelings.  Reed appeared to blame his father for what he had been put through and wrote about the incident in his 1974 song Kill Your Sons, from the album Sally Can’t Dance.

In an interview with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for the book Please Kill Me:  An Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), Reed said of the electroconvulsive therapy:

“They put this thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head.  That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings.  The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable.  You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again”.

For Walk on the Wild Side, Reed remembered the transsexuals and transvestites of Warhol’s Factory scene and painted a tale of how they had come to be in New York.  In the first verse of the song, we are introduced to Holly:  “Holly came from Miami, FLA”.  Holly refers to Holly Woodlawn, a transvestite born Haraldo Santiago Franeschi Rodriguez Danhakl, born in Puerto Rico, 1946 who “Hitched hiked her way across the USA, Plucked her eyebrows on the way, Shaved her legs and then he was a she”.  Holly is best remembered for starring in Warhol’s film Trash (1970) alongside Joe Dallesandro, whom I shall mention later.

In the second verse, we see Candy Darling return into Reed’s songwriting:  “Candy came from out on the Island”.  Transsexual Candy Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery on Long Island, New York in 1944.  Candy Darling died of cancer in 1974.

In the third verse, “Little Joe” who “never once gave it away” refers to Joe Dallesandro, born in Pensacols, Florida in 1948.  Dallesandro was the ‘straight’ butch Brooklyn street kid who had turned to gay hustling before his discovery by Warhol and director Paul Morrissey, hence the lines, “A hustle here and a hustle there, New York City is the place where …”  Warhol and Morrissey used Dallesandro’s universal sex appeal to their advantage in several full-length cinema projects, most notably Lonesome Cowboys (1968); Trash (1970) and Heat (1972).  Later Dallesandro crossed over into mainstream films, playing the part of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in The Cotton Club (1984) alongside Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins.  He is now considered to be an icon of underground cinema and of gay subculture.

“Sugar Plum Fairy” in verse four, refers to actor Joe Campbell and not to a drug dealer, as often mistakenly thought by listeners.  Campbell, who’s nickname was the “Sugar Plum Fairy” appeared in a few of Warhol’s films, including My Hustler (1965) and Nude Restaurant (1967).  Campbell was also known for being in a relationship with openly gay politician Harvey Milk.  Campbell passed away in 2005 following a lengthy battle with AIDS.

“Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day …” refers to drag queen Jackie Curtis.  Curtis was born John Holder Jr. In 1947 and performed both in and out of drag in films, most notably Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt, as well as onstage.  He was also a prolific writer.  Curtis has also been credited for, in some part, inspiring the glam rock movement of the 1970’s due to his use of lipstick, glitter, bright red hair and ripped dresses and stockings during drag performances.  Warhol once described Curtus as follows:  “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen.  Jackie is an artist.  A pioneer without a frontier”.  Curtis was also a heavy drug user, hence the aforementioned lines alluding to speed and its effects and the following lines, “Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.  Curtis succumbed to his addiction to heroin and various other drugs and died following an overdose in 1985.

Amazingly, for a song that concerns itself with such subject matter and contains phrases such as “giving head”, Walk on the Wild Side was never banned by the BBC or by most US radio stations because they simply did not understand the references.  Walk on the Wild Side did however see some edited versions at the time, but instead of taking out the reference to oral sex, various edits replace the line “And the coloured girls say” with “And the girls all say”.  This could simply just be because many radio stations in 1972 were limited to a time frame of 3 to 3 and a half minutes per song, which the full version of Walk on the Wild Side lasts 4 minutes and 12 seconds.  Speaking about Walk on the Wide Side in Victor Bokris’s biography Transformer:  The Lou Reed Story (1994), Reed said:  “I always thought it would be kind of fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”.

Reed continued to use the backdrop of New York and its people, often those caught on the outside of society, in his songs throughout his career.  The Transformer album notably features several songs written about the New York scene that he loved, including Andy’s Chest, a song with a Dadaist lyrical structure written for Andy Warhol following his failed assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

The album also notably includes New York Telephone Conversation, a rather sarcastic song about the spreading of tittle-tattle by telephone in “the city of shows”.

Later in his career, Reed would use the imagery of New York, still using inhabitants regarded as ‘low life’, to great effect on his 1989 album New York.  Whilst the New York album is highly regarded for the strength and force of its lyrics, it drew much criticism at the time for its apparent pedestrian “truck driver” musicianship.  However, the music of the New York album is purposely simplistic in order to not distract from the frankness of the lyrical content.  Throughout the fourteen songs featured on the album, the lyrics are profuse and carefully woven into a concept album.  In the liner notes for the album, Reed directs the listener to hear the album in one sitting “as though it were a book or a movie”.

On New York, an older Reed seemed more much more bitter towards his once beloved city.  Take for example, the lyrics in one of the album’s tales of life in a New York Slum, Dirty Blvd.  “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em, That’s what the statue of bigotry says, Your poor huddled masses, Let’s club ‘em to death, And get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard”, says Reed with more than a hint of sarcastic anger.  These lines are a play on the 1883 poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the second verse of which reads:

“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””

Elsewhere on the New York album, we find the song Romeo Had Juliette, a song about New York’s hopeless, hopeful, innocent, violent and greedy.  Romeo Had Juliette is a dark and bitter modern day take on Romeo and Juliet but also a poem to the beautiful but dirty and wrecked city that Reed adored, complete with the awe-inspiring opening lines, “Caught between the twisted stars, The plotted lines, the faulty map, That brought Columbus to New York”.  Elsewhere, Reed tells of how “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock, They wrote a book about it, They said it was like ancient Rome”, expressing Reed’s concerns that like Ancient Rome, New York had become too big for its own good.

Also on the album is the song Halloween Parade, about the annual gay celebration in Greenwich Village and to all intents and purposes, a dark sequel to Walk on the Wild Side.  Halloween Parade is a post-AIDS crisis tribute to those who had fallen.  “There ain’t no Harry, no Virgin Mary, You Won’t hear those voices again, And Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, You’ll never see those faces again” says Reed solemnly.

Thousands Are Sailing: Ten Songs About Immigration. Ellis Island Immigration Center Processes 17, 747 People, More Than Any Other Day, This Day In History, 17/04/1907.

1.  The Pogues ‘Thousands Are Sailing’

(from the album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1988).

2.  Led Zeppelin ‘Immigrant Song’

(from the album Led Zeppelin III, 1970).

3.  British Sea Power ‘Waving Flags’

(from the album Do You Like Rock Music?, 2008).

4.  U2 ‘The Refugee’

(from the album War, 1983).

5.  The White Stripes ‘Icky Thump’

(from the album Icky Thump, 2007).

6.  Neil Diamond ‘America’

(from the album The Jazz Singer, 1980).

7.  Bruce Springsteen ‘American Land’

(from the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006).

8.  Van der Graaf Generator ‘Refugees’

(from the album The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, 1970).

9.  Elbow ‘The Blanket of Night’

(from the album The Take Off and Landing of Everything, 2014).

10. Elvis Costello ‘Deportee’

(from the album King of America – Bonus Tracks, 1986).

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day One: “It’s Warhol, actually.”

Andy Warhol, David Bowie’s musical tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, from the album Hunky Dory (1971) is just one of the many Bowie songs influenced by the American counterculture of the 1960’s.  Bowie’s interest in Warhol was in no small part due to his love of The Velvet Underground, the band whom Andy Warhol managed and was, aesthetically, something of a svengali figure to.

Bowie was an avid Velvet Underground fan and the experimental art rock ethic of the music with its Lou Reed penned lyrical tales of New York’s dark underbelly was a key factor in influencing Bowie to ditch the whimsical pop style of his early years.  Bowie has performed the Velvet underground songs I’m Waiting For The Man (from their album Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) and White Light / White Heat, (from the album White Light / White Heat, 1968),  at different points in his career, most notably in the early 70’s.

Bowie also produced and played on Lou Reed’s Transformer album in 1972. Transformer included Lou Reed’s own song for Andy Warhol, Andy’s Chest, a Dada inspired piece written for Andy following the artist’s attempted murder by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

Lou Reed would later go on to release a full length tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella (1990), with Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, following Warhol’s unexpected death in 1987.

As well as Bowie’s tribute to Andy Warhol, Hunky Dory also featured Queen Bitch, a self-proclaiming Velvet Underground pastiche (see the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory:  “Some V.U white light”) in tribute to the band and in particular, Lou Reed.   The sound of The Velvet Underground would provide a major template for the glam rock sound adopted by Bowie on Hunky Dory’s seminal follow up album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).

Whilst The Velvet Underground were important to Bowie’s sound, Bowie’s image was greatly influenced by Andy Warhol.  Andy Warhol understood the media like no other and showed Bowie how to use it before it used you.  This was done by consciously adopting an image.  The success of Andy Warhol also made it more important to have an image.  Bowie was at the zenith of his success when he displayed complete invulnerability, much like Warhol’s, which hinged on the sense that he wasn’t quite human.  There was no fixed personality, more an ever changing array of personalities, a myriad of masks created by the singer.

Bowie played his tribute song to Andy Warhol when he met him in 1971.  Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song as he thought the lyrics made fun of his physical appearance.  Speaking about his meeting with Andy Warhol, in a BBC interview in 2002, Bowie said:

“The only touch point that we had was a pair of shoes that I was wearing from Anello and Davide, they were real strange little jobs.  I think they were yellow.  As far as I remember they were yellow with a half, no, a two inch heel on them and he really liked them.  And of course it occurred to me that the reason that he was getting quite fascinated with these was that he used to be a shoe designer, or at least he used to do a lot of pictures of shoes anyway because I remember seeing them.  So I thought, oh he liked them then, let’s talk about my shoes.  It became quite a disillusionment in its way.  But on the other hand, it supported everything that I wanted to believe about him, that I was with Andy Warhol for an hour and he said nothing, except he liked my shoes.  Wow, that’s a real anecdote.  Because I’d bought the whole pop art thing that he wasn’t a real person, he was just a creation.  15 years after that, I would be looking at myself and thinking, ‘Don’t people realise that I’m a real person’”.

In 1996, Bowie would have the honour of playing Andy Warhol in the film BasquiatBaquiat is a film based on the life of another influential artist on Bowie’s work, Brooklyn born postmodernist / neo expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Speaking of Bowie’s portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat after the film’s release, Paul Morrissey, the director of many of the films which Warhol produced told People Magazine:

“Bowie was the best by far.  You came away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him … At least Bowie knew Andy.  They went to the same parties”.